A few years ago, my girlfriend offered to teach me how to speak German. I took her up on this, and we began around May 2014. The language became the thing I was most interested in for a solid two years. Almost weekly we’d go to Stammtisch meetings, which are basically just where people who speak German meet and drink beers and talk. It was great, and I felt I was learning fast.
In November 2016, I bought us tickets to go to Berlin for 12 days, contacted a couple of bands to see if they were playing shows while we’d be there, found out that one of my favorites was playing a show in Vienna. So we built in to that trip a weekend trip to Austria.
The whole trip was in the middle of March. We arrived in Berlin at about 6p on March 14th, and I quickly learned that speaking German with Germans is much different from speaking it with Americans who can speak German. Even if the Americans are fluent to the near native level, they understand you despite your intermediate level mistakes. When you mess up the grammar and jam a German sentence into the grammatical structure of an American English one, they get it, and it’s fine. The best example of this can be found in relative clauses and the past perfect tense:
Wir sind nach Österreich geflogen, weil meine Lieblingsband da gespielt hat.
(Word for word translation):
We are to Austria flown, because my favorite band there played had.
As a native English speaker, I’ve found that I need to put in a concerted effort not to say:
Wir haben nach Österreich geflogen, weil meine Lieblingsband hat da gespielt.
We had to Austria flown, because my favorite band had there played.
The first difference is the use of sein (sind) to put flugen into past-perfect tense. Even disregarding the word order, it feels odd to say “I am to there gone.” There’s like 9 words that use “sein” instead of “haben,” so it’s hard to remember that and have it feel natural.
Beyond that,there’s the issue of moving the verb that would in other cases be the second part of the sentence to the end because of the relative clause.
As much as I have practiced these things, and felt comfortable even speaking with Americans or other non-native German speakers, nothing can fully prepare you for “total” immersion. I have to use quotes there, because the immersion I experienced was conveniently something that was entirely up to me. Most of the people I encountered spoke English. Only one or two decided to switch to English, since it wasn’t clear to them that I was able to understand them–and admittedly, I couldn’t really always understand everything.
At some bar within the first couple days we were there, Emily made a joke to me about how Germans must look at us the way they’d look at a dog standing on two legs (“Isn’t that cute, trying to walk like people.”) I took it to heart, and it was foolish to have. As I said, there was only two people I can recall switching to English without asking. Which means that regardless of how they were viewing me, I was being given an opportunity to hear and speak the language I’ve been trying to improve myself on. If there’s anything I regret about the time I spent in Germany, it’s that I was too insecure to speak the language as freely as I actually enjoy speaking it, and that’s on me.